A Political Theory of Pandemics

Manuel Arias-Maldonado 

What does the Covid-19 pandemic tell us? In what way does it affect our perception of reality and how we relate with it? What lessons can be learned from this extraordinary episode?

I will simply extract two teachings of the pandemic, and by distilling them, propose some guidelines.

1. The pandemic confirms that the theme of our time is the sustainable reorganization of socionatural ties.

2. It shows the limits of human capacity to anticipate and control events.

What follows is a regulatory prescription: the advisability of giving form to a pessimistic Enlightenment. The pandemic has not yielded this result on its own, but is the spectacular culmination of the catastrophic course of our young century, which at first seemed headed to spare us the disasters of the previous one.

Let’s be clear: if the optimism of early modernity is unrepeatable – because we have by now read too many history books – this does not mean we should fall into the fatalism of ignoring the material and moral progress made by humanity since then. To speak of a pessimistic Enlightenment is to be hopeful: we retain a certain confidence in modernity, even as we shed our more adolescent illusions along the way. The postulates of pessimistic Enlightenment can be formulated thus:

i. Even if we dare think for ourselves, there is no guarantee that our reasonings will bear fruit, or that we will come to the best intersubjective agreements. But this is no ground for renouncing cautious use of reason.

ii. Total emancipation of humanity is not an attainable objective, but an illusion, characteristic of the first wave of modernity, that we ought to dissipate. Undesirable social experiments have been undertaken in its name.

iii. From this we deduce not that we have to forsake the emancipatory ideal, but that we have to settle for a restrained, reflective emancipation whose prerequisite is an ecologically sustainable wellbeing. There is no single, preset way to meet this objective.

iv. No human history is free of accidents and catastrophes, be they exogenous (like viruses) or endogenous (like an economic crisis). Disasters have never been altogether left behind in the past, and still await us in the future; we cannot prevent them, but we can prepare to deal with them.

v. The human body may be the measure of many things, but not of all things: we have to build awareness of the non-human world, with its relative autonomy, which sometimes manifests itself in catastrophic manner and which at any rate demands of the human being the tension of a permanent immune response.

It has to be pointed out, nonetheless, that the pessimism of Enlightenment is not at all a form of declinism. Doesn’t one who deploys a rhetoric of failure also harbor great expectations about human potential? It helps to judge the trajectory of the species in a way that takes into account its intrinsic limitations, as well as the difficult context in which it unfolds. There are disasters and failures; this is to be expected.

The Covid-19 pandemic must not lead to defeatism. Humanity has always moved in many directions, and there are as many retreats as there are advances. And if enlightenment is not only a critical attitude but also a learning process, the pandemic teaches us that the age-old threat of infectious disease has not disappeared, and that the temporalities of modernity can cause global accidents. So we have a tall order before us: tasks requiring united efforts of human pupils in coming decades. We have no choice but to get down to work.

Taken from the epilogue of Desde las ruinas del futuro (Taurus, 2020).

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